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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 October 2007, 12:24 GMT
Why do thieves still steal mobile phones?
The Magazine answers...

Most stolen mobiles will still work overseas

As the government boasts about improvements in blocking stolen mobile phones, industry experts are concerned Apple's new iPhone will lead to a jump in thefts. So what good is a stolen mobile these days?

They're impressive statistics. Every mobile phone reported stolen in the UK is blocked by its network provider for use on that network within 24 hours. Within 48 hours 90% are blocked from every network in the country, according to the Mobile Industry Crime Action Forum (MICAF).

Police say 800,000 Britons have their phones stolen every year. They are taken in 52% of all robberies and in 28% of all thefts they are the only thing taken, says the Home Office.

New technology to dodge security measures, the lack of such measures in other countries and the high number of mobiles in circulation

But if they are rendered useless so quickly why are so many still stolen and why are there serious concerns that the UK launch of the Apple iPhone could prompt a sharp rise in thefts?

New technology to dodge security measures, along with mobiles becoming a currency in their own right in some countries are part of the answer. Along with the simple fact that thieves will always take whatever "valuables" are around during a robbery.

The industry and police have worked hard to stop mobile thefts. Blocking, and other measures, having been credited for a 20% drop in such crime. But it's not a fool-proof system and a phone can be unblocked, even though it is a criminal offence to do so in the UK.


Blocking is not to be confused with unlocking, which is when a mobile is freed from a dedicated network and is legal.

A phone is blocked using its International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, which is unique to every phone manufactured. It disables the phone's SIM card.

A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

There is a national IMEI database which automatically identifies stolen phones. If the police stop you they can check the database to see if you are in possession of a stolen phone.

Criminals unblock a phone by changing the IMEI number. Using a combination of hardware and software, they access the mobile's set up to change the IMEI. The going rate for unblocking is 10 to 50, depending on the model.

"We always knew the system wasn't fool proof," says Jack Wraith, chair of MICAF. "Any software device can be hacked into, but we are always making changes that make this increasingly difficult."

'Nice-to-have items'

Because unblocking is not illegal in other countries stolen mobiles are now increasingly shipped abroad. The National Mobile Phone Crime Unit (NMPCU) has uncovered cases of phones being stolen to order for export.

"Increased security measures in the UK have resulted in the criminality being displaced," says Mr Wraith. "Once the back-street dealer would have unblocked phones but now they just gather them and ship them abroad."

This has resulted in mobiles becoming a currency unto themselves, in some instances. Mobiles have been exchanged for drugs in a cashless transaction, says the NMPCU.

There are concerns about iPhone thefts
The industry admits mobile phone thefts will never be totally eradicated. Subscriptions rocketed to 72 million this year from 17 million in 1999, says MICAF. Just the sheer number means a certain amount will inevitably be taken.

"Most people have one and thieves will always take whatever valuables a person has on them during a robbery," said Mr Wraith.

"Often a person is not targeted for their phone, taking it can be as simple as not wanting the victim to have the means to report the theft immediately. A huge number of stolen phones are not unblocked or sold on, they are just dumped."

What the industry can do is deter thieves by making it increasingly difficult and time-consuming to pass on the stolen goods, says MICAF.

There are concerns that the UK launch of the iPhone on 9 November could result in a jump in mobile thefts. Apple says it has improved security and they cannot be unlocked or unblocked. People will still steal them, says Mr Wraith.

"They are iconic and will be one of those 'nice-to-have items'. The industry, along with the police and the government, are concerned they will cause a peak in robberies."

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